Special needs children do Christmas shopping early in dimmer, quieter store

Zhangde Primary School pupil Gabriel Chee, 12, playing with Lego toys at Toys 'R' Us in VivoCity on Dec 16, 2017.
Zhangde Primary School pupil Gabriel Chee, 12, playing with Lego toys at Toys 'R' Us in VivoCity on Dec 16, 2017. PHOTO: NATIONAL YOUTH COUNCIL

SINGAPORE - Shopping in a bright and noisy environment is usually difficult for the family of 10-year-old Jonathan Liu. The Minds Towner Gardens School pupil has autism.

"If we are out shopping with him normally, it is just grab and go - it is difficult to get him to stop walking around," said his mother Ivy Chong, 48, who is a housewife.

But the family was among 10 families with autistic children that had an easier time at the Toys 'R' Us outlet at VivoCity on Saturday (Dec 16). Some of the lights and the in-store music were turned off for an hour.

The public address system and display monitors carrying advertisements were also switched off.

It was the second run of the Quiet Hour, organised by national youth volunteer programme Youth Corps Singapore and Toys 'R' Us.

Ms Tang Hui Yee, 28, a manager at Youth Corps Singapore who organised the project, said the initiative will now be held on a regular basis, after good feedback from participating families from the first run in April.

"In fact, all the parents gave positive feedback, saying this has helped them to be more at ease," she said. But Ms Tang added that getting more companies on board was the main challenge in expanding the initiative.

The team had come up with the idea after learning that stores in Britain had similar projects.

For instance, department store Asda Living in Manchester was one of the first to adopt the idea. It staged its first Quiet Hour on a Saturday in May last year.

Marketing manager for Toys 'R' Us Samantha Lee said: "It's all about putting smiles on children's faces at Toys 'R' Us. We are merely doing a small part to provide a conducive environment for them to have fun."

The Toys 'R' Us outlet opened an hour early at 9am. More than 20 volunteers interacted with children at activity booths, making Christmas cards and Lego constructions, for example.

They were also on hand to brief the public on how to interact with those with autism, in a bid to improve public understanding of the condition. Autism is estimated to affect 1 per cent of the population.

Ms Gina Tay, 27, who has been a teacher in a special needs school for almost four years, said dimmer and quieter environments cater to these children's sensory needs.

She added: "It is important for them to be exposed to public areas, such as shopping malls, so they can better practise their skills in a typical shopping environment."

Another family who benefited was civil servant Doreen Teo, 44, and her 12-year-old son Gabriel, who was looking for Transformers figures.

Ms Teo said her son, who has autism and is a pupil at Zhangde Primary School, is able to go shopping in a normal setting. However, shopping during Quiet Hour means she needs to worry less about her son being misunderstood by members of the public.

"If we are fully accepted by society, we will no longer need quiet time," she added.